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The PRN system: If it ain't broke....

In February, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced its revised targets for UK packaging recycling 2008 2010. The new targets set more ambitious goals for the coming three years and will be central to moves to improve recycling performance across the board in the UK.

The driving force behind the Governments recycling intent is compliance with EU legislation.  Central targets have been set for the last few years for packaging recycling and recovery and each member state has to meet them.  Since their introduction, the EU has steadily increased the targets until 2008, but they are now being kept at the same level for the next few years to allow new member states to catch up.  Despite this, the UK Government was keen to continue the domestic recycling momentum. 

The consultation and the resulting targets have triggered much debate.  Some hoped the Government would announce targets for a longer period to incentivise investment in the UK waste management infrastructure, others have commented that a recycling system based on weight is out-dated and using carbon as a guide would be more environmentally effective. Nevertheless, the targets are now set and we must all work together to achieve them. 

The announcement has also provided an opportunity to ensure that the
UK system for delivering these targets is working effectively. The current system in the UK is producer responsibility focused, which means that all parties involved in the production of packaging - from raw material to retailer - pay a proportionate cost dependant on the tonnage of packaging manufactured, filled or sold.

Under this system, companies carry out their producer responsibility by purchasing enough packaging waste recovery notes (PRNs) to meet their obligation. Companies that have a producer responsibility for packaging have two choices; they can register with a compliance scheme, where their obligation is purchased for them, or they can calculate their own obligation and purchase their own PRNs.

According to Environment Agency policy advisor Jeff Cooper, the current system is not effective at incentivising packaging recovery from the household waste stream because it only impacts on the commercial waste sector and not on local authorities or consumers. He suggests, therefore, that it become compulsory for all producers of packaging to join a compliance scheme to encourage more recovery and recycling.

Whilst this suggestion could help identify poorly performing schemes, forcing companies to join compliance schemes will add little to the overall success of packaging recycling and would be a backward step in terms of choice and commercial freedom.

Companies that decide to calculate their own obligation and purchase their own PRNs obviously understand the system. They are adept at filling in the returns and managing data on time and in full. They are also more concerned with packaging optimisation and design for recyclability, as they can directly see the financial benefits of doing so.

From Corus perspective, as an accredited steel packaging reprocessor, we have been able to invest millions of pounds into improving the UKs recycling infrastructure as a direct result of the PRN system. This money has directly funded grassroots recycling projects, providing sorting and baling equipment to local authorities and companies across the UK. 

To continue to improve packaging recycling rates, industry, local authorities and Government need to look at ways to better align targets with encouraging capture rates and consumer participation. Targeted campaigns and continued investment in infrastructure, particularly completing kerbside collections; improving the consistency and quality of collected materials across local authorities; and improving communication with consumers, are key to this.

Steel has been central to the success of the UK Producer Responsibility system for packaging in the
UK. Testament to this success is that steel surpassed the European packaging recycling target of 54% two years early. Of course, now attention inevitably shifts to the coming years and how this success will continue. It has to be recognised by policy makers and their advisers that the system has worked because of its diverse component parts and not despite them from raw material producers through to retailers all have played their part. Incentivising packaging collection from household waste will help achieve UK recycling targets and requires a dedicated strategy for doing so; however, compulsory producer compliance schemes are not the answer.

David Williams is Manager of Corus Steel Packaging Recycling.


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